Even Adults have Teddy Bears

Be sure to identify attachment objects for your corporate change effort

It turns out that our childhood tendency to attach to objects—like Linus’ blanket, mom, or that fuzzy stuffed animal—never really goes away. It’s known as attachment behavior. Dr. Victoria Grady of George Mason University spoke about it at the ACMP Conference in Dallas last May and tied its relevance to organizational change. For example, if your company is preparing for an acquisition, merger, workplace transformation, or other major change—particularly something that shakes up employees’ surroundings—it can be helpful to uncover employees’ attachment objects and try to keep some of them around to provide a sense of consistency, stability, and familiarity after the change happens. 

Upon hearing her brief lecture, four experiences I had with this jumped out at me. In some cases, the attachment object may be a leader. In other cases, it may be a physical object. Here are some physical attachment objects I’ve seen—some are less obvious than others, but interesting no less. Many of these become particularly pertinent as workplace designs trend toward minimalist, open settings with limited desk space. Identifying them early-on in your change effort can save a lot of time, minimize employee frustration, and enhance performance and morale.

1.    CPU

Yes, Central Processing Units, those large boxy hard drives hardly conjure images of soft, cuddly, comforting objects, but to a cyber security engineer testing viruses and malware, they are a very big deal. Practically speaking, they ensure a safe testing environment. But symbolically speaking, they convey a level of prestige—more is better.

Upon learning about the new workplace they’d be moving into, several engineers raised concerns over being able to fit all of their CPUs into their new desk areas. Fortunately, this came up early in the process, so the project team had time to go on a fact-finding mission. They took inventory of the CPUs to understand how many each person had and if the policy for a maximum number of CPUs at an individual desk was being, ahem, negotiated (at a certain point, they were supposed to use a lab). It may have been a matter of partitioning a work area where more CPUs could be placed and ensuring ample power and cooling supplies, or it may have been a matter of reducing the number of CPUs.

If we hadn’t discovered this early, there would have been an adverse impact on the engineers’ ability to be productive in their new workspace, not to mention a challenge to their sense of stature. As it was, the project team and the engineers were able to make adjustments ahead of time. What could have been a major issue at move-in was avoided.

2.    Foosball

Walk through an office in Silicon Valley and you may find yourself pummeled with Nerf bullets or bursts of air as someone speeds by you on a scooter in the hallway. Work hard and play hard is the mantra, and it’s not rare to find an intense ping-pong or foosball game taking place in the middle of the day for a much-needed stress break. Unfortunately, the foosball table was one of the attachment objects we missed.

When a group of employees learned that their foosball table could not be moved into their new work area, they were not pleased. In fact, they decided to take matters into their own hands and move it themselves. Picture five guys rolling a very heavy foosball table across a busy four-lane avenue, through the center of corporate campus, and into the new building—all in all, about a ½ mile trek. Unluckily for them, the table wouldn’t fit into the elevator and they were subsequently caught red-handed by Facilities.

Five hours and several communications later (involving some pretty high-level people), the group understood why the foosball table would need to remain on the first floor and not adjacent to their work area on the fourth floor. But it was a big miss on the change team’s part. On one hand, this group didn’t participate much in our engagement activities, so we never heard a direct and passionate plea for keeping the foosball table within the work area. However, on the other hand, we got wind of it, but didn’t ask the probing questions to fully appreciate how it was, in fact, an attachment object. If we had done that, we could have provided specific communications in advance to bring clarity to the situation, which would have likely saved a lot of time, drama, and employee frustration.

3.  Artwork

Way back in 1994 when Johnson & Johnson acquired Neutrogena, there was a lot of talk about what would happen to the enchanting southwestern folk art collection on display throughout Neutrogena’s small manufacturing campus smack dab in the middle of LAX runways. Whether you were strolling through the corporate offices or navigating vats of shampoo in the manufacturing areas, you may have found yourself staring at a painting or sculpture worth tens of thousands of dollars. I recall it started as the founder’s symbolic gesture: he was sharing his beloved art collection with his employees. Over time, it became an embedded cultural icon. So yes, you could say, the collection itself became an attachment object. Johnson & Johnson decided the art should stay. I worked there in 2002, so eight years later employees still talked about that pivotal decision by their acquiring company and how happy they were that much of the art remained.

4. Plants and Other Personal Effects

Having a small plant or bunch of bamboo placed on one’s desk can brighten the spirit, provide oxygen, and represent a little bit of nature in what are often stale office settings. But I once saw an employee take this to the extreme. Picture the office version of Little Shop of Horrors. Vines protruded in all directions crawling across the cube and growing into ceiling tiles. It had become a safety hazard. Obviously, a compromise for this attachment object was in order.

While that was an unusual case, employers and managers may find themselves seeking compromises more and more often when it comes to employees’ personal office décor. This is particularly pertinent as companies convert to open office environments with minimalist design and smaller work areas. Historically, when jobs were fairly stable and long-term, many employees turned work areas into homey settings with prominent displays of memorabilia, photographs, or other objects of affection. Parting with these attachment objects can unleash feelings of loss. Try to strike a balance. Obviously, you can ask employees to keep a limited set of the items. But you can also try to reserve a space for the work area and suggest employees co-create team themes or collections to be placed there. As an added bonus, the featured attachment objects can spark team conversation and camaraderie.  

Bottom Line

Next time you find yourself leading a major change for a company, take time to ask questions that will help you uncover any attachment objects. It is a small and simple action, yet it can be one profound way to help employees, at least in part, through the deepest, darkest pit of the change curve.

What attachment objects have you seen in your adult work or that you may have yourself? Have you had to give up anything due to a change of surrounding?